Apple’s Mac Gap

as of 2017-01-20

The current age of Apple’s iMac (465 days), Mac mini (828 days) and Mac Pro (1129 days) (from Mac Rumors) are well over their average new model intervals: 1.5 times, 1.9 and 2.5 respectively. The MacBook Pro laptops were updated last October 27th, after an interval 1.65 times the average.

Why is it taking Apple so much longer to produce updated machines ?

Part of the delay is due to the primary chip supplier, Intel, and its inability to produce new CPU chips. But Apple and Intel have also partnered in a particular technology, Thunderbolt, which has just reached version 3 in the middle of 2016. In fact, the names of the newest MacBook Pro laptops are striking:

  • MacBook Pro 13”, Late 2016, with Two Thunderbolt 3 Ports
  • MacBook Pro 13”, Late 2016, with 4 Thunderbolt 3 Ports
  • MacBook Pro 15”, Late 2016 ( with 4 Thunderbolt 3 Ports)

Since Apple collaborated with Intel on Thunderbolt, they would certainly have a good idea of the direction the technology was going, even if they had no accurate idea of when those products would reach commercial production. Without a viable alternative to Intel processors — and AMD presumably has NO access to Thunderbolt — Apple had limited options. Apple was also a participant in the USB C design, creating the symmetrical connector also used as the Thunderbolt 3 connector, and that provides up to 100 watts of power. But Apple certainly had a complete picture of what Thunderbolt 3 (and USB-C) could do.

Another point to consider is that DisplayPort standards have lagged behind the resolution capabilities on current monitors. 5K monitors have not been supported. Support for DisplayPort 1.2 is required for 5K. The Mac Pro 2013 can only support up to 3 4K monitors.

Decision Point

What if Apple made a strategic decision that all Macs would ship with USB 3.0, USB-C sockets, and Thunderbolt 3 as soon as possible ? This would be because Thunderbolt 3 allows support for 5K displays, comparable to the iMac 27″ Retina.  As a corollary, Apple could divert engineering resources to other projects — both hardware and software — by not “bothering” to update Macs with Thunderbolt 2 until Thunderbolt 3 could be shipped.

My understanding is that commercial quantities of Intel Thunderbolt 3 controller chips were not released until the middle of 2016. Even now, “Kaby Lake” processors for MacBook Pros — the ones that Apple prefers — are not yet available.

Then the MacBook Pro models were released the end of last October.  With “Skylake” processors instead of Kaby Lake.

Such a strategy would explain the lack of new models. The first models updated are undoubtedly the most significant source of revenue, and ship with existing processors. So over the rest of Fiscal 2017, I expect the Mac models discussed to be refreshed: iMac, Mac Pro, and Mac mini.

The MacBook Air 13” will not be updated to Thunderbolt 3, since the low end MacBook Pro weighs the same, and includes a Retina display and a later CPU. Any update would include a later CPU, but would have only USB-C and Thunderbolt 3. Such a redesign would increase costs and probably not fit existing price points.

I hope the iMac update includes more than just 4 Thunderbolt 3 ports. There really should be at least 6, to replace all the previous USB ports, and the 2 Thunderbolt 2 ports. This would require 3 Thunderbolt 3 controller chips, so Apple may very well cheap out and only provide 4.